As the Victorian Government moves to implement the biggest changes to local government representation in decades, municipal councils and their representatives are pushing back, saying the reforms ignore the interests of local communities and will undermine council diversity.
The Local Government Bill 2020 will see all metropolitan councils, except Melbourne, move to single-member wards, a reform which the Victorian Government argues will improve accountability, but which most councils affected by the bill have strenuously resisted.
“There is no research or evidence-base to justify the shift towards single-member wards,” said Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) President Coral Ross.
“We advocated for the continued use of a flexible approach – including the use of un-subdivided municipalities, single-member wards and multi-member wards – to take into account local circumstances and communities of interest.”
Her objections were echoed by the Victorian Local Government Association CEO Kathryn Arndt, who said that the previous system was independent and that there was “no evidence” of it not working.
The bill passed the Victorian Parliament in March, supported by the ALP and the Liberal Party.
It enforces one councillor per ward in all city councils. This does not reduce the total number of representatives – rather councils with multi-member wards will have ward boundaries redrawn, dividing each ward into smaller areas with roughly equal numbers of voters. Most council wards historically have two or three councillors, elected by proportional representation.
Whitehorse municipality, which straddles Melbourne’s middle eastern suburbs from Mont Albert to Vermont, will receive one new councillor and Kingston, which stretches from Mordialloc to Patterson Lakes, will receive two.
Eight city councils will move to single-member wards before the council elections in October.
In a tweet as the bill went to the vote, Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam accused the Labor Party of enlisting the reforms in an attempt to “wipe out” independent and minority councillors, arguing that single-member wards “rig” councils in favour of the major parties.
Monash University politics expert, Dr Zareh Ghazarian, agreed the bill would change the face of representation on councils.
“Where multi-member districts are used, you have a bit more diversity, a bit more opportunity for those who are not the highest profile candidate there, but they will still have a chance of winning representation,” Dr Ghazarian said.
“But if it goes to single-member it may actually become a contest of the popular candidates, and it might start to replicate what we see at state and federal levels with single member electorates used to elect members to the lower house. That has helped strengthen what is essentially a two party system.”
An analysis by The Citizen of submissions on the bill from 29 city councils shows all but two are critical of the reforms. Many say that the system is inflexible and ignores local community interests.
Local Government Minister Adem Somyurek has strongly defended the reforms, arguing in a media release announcing the changes last month that single-member wards “support accountability, equity and grassroots democracy” for ratepayers.
“This is about giving people more confidence in local government, because strong councils build strong communities.”
Speaking in the parliament in March, he has accused opponents in councils of having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. “People tend to cling to the electoral structures in which they got elected.
“But this is not a popularity contest. You should not be doing public policy based on what is popular.”
Yarra City Council, made up of multi-member wards, said in its submission that “constituents have no trouble seeking out representation when required – including from councillors from other wards”.
“Arguably, constituents more effectively receive direct representation from a councillor who shares their views.”
A Greens councillor for Monash municipality, Josh Fergeus, argued that multi-member wards allowed ratepayers to choose which councillors they engage with.
“In a local government scenario the relationship is a lot more personal, you often speak to your representative directly,” said Cr Fergeus.
“You can develop a relationship with a representative who has attributes and an approach which is conducive to the way that you want to interact with your council.”
The bill emerged from a Victorian Government review of the Local Government Act initiated in 2015 in response to perceived inconsistencies in the Act from almost three decades of amendments.
The review culminated in a 2018 proposed bill. However, this bill lapsed when parliament expired before the 2018 election.
In June last year new reforms were proposed, including single-member wards across all councils, and mandatory induction training for all new councillors.
The Victorian Government was criticised by many councils for a lack of consultation regarding these new reforms.
In a letter to Adem Somyurek, Frankston mayor Michael O’Reilly said there was “deep concern” over the proposed reforms and the short time allowed for feedback.
The Council requested an extension of three months to the feedback period. The government granted two weeks.
Similarly, Yarra Ranges Council criticised the inadequate consultation and called the proposals “conceptual and lacking in detail”.
Local Government electoral structures are currently determined by Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) by individual council reviews at least every 12 years.
Yarra City Council has undergone two electoral reviews, with input from community and council, said independent Yarra councillor Jackie Fristacky, leading her to question why Yarra should change its multi-member structure.
“That was accepted following a pretty extensive review, six months or eight months of examination,” Cr Fristacky told The Citizen. “What are the reasons to alter that?”
Since 2003, many city councils have moved to multi-member wards after VEC reviews.
Cr Fristacky said she shared concerns that single-member wards would remove diversity on councils.
“It’ll be less likely to have independents and in some instances, women elected,” said Cr Fristacky.
“I think it’ll be dominated by one or the other political party, rather than a broader perspective reflecting the range of views in the community. I doubt I would be elected. And I’ve gone through five elections”.
Cr Fergeus said that the legislation would damage the Greens’ numbers on councils.
“It will absolutely shut out the variety of minor parties and independents,” he said.
Labor is planning to endorse council candidates in metropolitan areas for the upcoming elections in October – a reversal of previous party policy.